THE AGONY AND THE ECSTASY
US/Italy, 1965, 139 minutes, Colour.
Charlton Heston, Rex Harrison, Diane Cilento, Harry Andrews, Alberto Lupo.
Directed by Carol Reed.
The Agony and the Ecstasy is a strange film. Many people have thoroughly enjoyed it because of their interest in Michelangelo and their reading of Irving Stone's novel. Other people have thought it a most silly film. It is a section from Stone's novel and shows the central years of Michelangelo's career, especially in his clashes and confrontations with Pope Julius II.
Charlton Heston seems a strange choice to play Michelangelo. However, he does his best with his tradition of playing important historical characters. Rex Harrison is also a strange choice for Pope Julius II. He seems to suit battle sequences, but as Pope he is a peculiar blend of Professor Higgins and Doctor Doolittle. His deathbed scene when he fights with Michelangelo and recovers seems particularly ludicrous with the choir changing from dirge to alleluia song. However, visually the film is most impressive.
In theatres, it had a twenty minute prologue showing in Panavision the most famous works of Michelangelo. This has been omitted in the television presentations of the film. Sets look beautiful but there is some bathos in sequences where Michelangelo in the mountains of Carrara sees what looks like the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in the clouds in the sky. Direction was by Carol Reed who had made such excellent films in the 40s and the 50s as Odd Man Out and The Third Man. Reed went to America and made a number of very average films, although in this time he won an Oscar for his direction of Oliver. This is not the last word in film on Michelangelo.
1. Was this a good film or a bad film? Why? Did it suffer from some of the actors being dubbed into American? Or was this not noticeable? How did the film rely on the personalities of its stars? Did Charlton Heston act or was he as his usual performance? Was Rex Harrison a convincing star to have as Julius II (was he too similar to Professor Higgins or Doctor Doolittle?)? Did the stars add to or detract from the film?
2. The significance of the title in the film? It was spoken by Contessina. It was concerned with the creative work of art. How is artistic work an agony and an ecstasy? Does Michelangelo's work illustrate this?
3. The impact of the prologue and the panoramic view of Michelangelo's work? What attitude in an audience does such a prologue create? How much admiration for Michelangelo before the film starts? How much does it presuppose of an audience's appreciation of art? (Does it detract from the film and audience sympathy for Michelangelo if the prologue is removed, as on television?)
4. What kind of person was Michelangelo in the film? A sympathetic person? A lonely person? How loving was he: consider the conversations between himself and Contessina about love between man and woman, love for work, loneliness, the emotional fulfilment of a person? How consumed was Michelangelo in his work, in the sculpture of the tomb for Julius II, in his resistance to painting, in his prising of the marble out of the Carrara mountains, in his dedication to painting, in following his inspiration, in dedication to the completion of his work even if it were to be destroyed? what insight into artistic inspiration did the film give? How did it show that, in so many ways, art depended on political and social conditions of the time? On patronage? How did the film show that art has a lasting effect where the military impact of individuals passes? Michelangelo lived 55 years after the film ended. Does this seem credible to you after seeing this film?
5. How well was Julius II presented in this film? The wars and the initial bloodshed from which he emerged as Pope? Was he a good Pope? A religious man? Why did he see that it was his duty to be a military pope? Was it necessary for the Church to protect the Papal states against rising nationalism? What arguments in favour of Julius did the film offer? What arguments against him? He was a slightly comical, quizzical figure at times. Did this detract from the film? For example, in his inspecting of the chapel and the ceiling, his moods, his interest in Michelangelo's designs instead of a siege, his making Michelangelo recover, his response to Michelangelo's taunts? Was he a dignified character? Or a caricature? What was the interaction between himself and Michelangelo? How is this illustrated in their final conversation about the presentation of God the Father on the ceiling?
6. How good a picture of the times did the film give? The picture of Row and Florence as cities? Styles of life? The Florentine nobility? The styles of artists, sculptors, painters and their assistants, styles of work? The Papal court and Papal politics? Cardinals? (Young Cardinals made to get money). The influence of religion on politics and vice versa? What were your impressions of these times?
7. What did the film say about the interrelationship of religion, art, war?
8. Was Bramante an interesting figure? Was he a caricature? Was his main role in the film to criticise Michelangelo and his projects? or did one understand something of Bramante’s artistic achievement as well? Bramante's promotion of Raphael? What impression did Raphael make? As ambitious, learning from Michelangelo, Raphael's work and paintings?
9. What was the role of Contessina in the film? A heroine? A foil for Michelangelo? An occasion whereby he and she could discuss the emotional issues of the film? Why her devotion to him? How did she really help him?
10. The picture of the cardinals? Especially the Medic! cardinal, his relationship with the Pope, with Michelangelo, his standing for Florence? His speech at the end in praise of Julius's work?
11. How interestingly was the picture given of how fresco painters worked? Their designs, the colours, the tracing on walls and ceilings, scaffolding etc.? Also the picture of the getting of marble from Carrara?
12. What insight into history and art did the film give? How deep and realistic? How superficial?
13. What was the quality of the screenplay? The types of language used by the players? The cliches? Comment on some of the sequences and their effect eg. The Pope and ceremonies and paint falling, Michelangelo's inspiration for the ceiling in the clouds, the visit to the courtesan?